Health & Fitness

Beets, watermelon and nitric oxide: Not just for athletes

Olympic marathon runners and college football stars chug-a-lug beet juice for a performance boost. Headlines tout watermelon as “the miracle recovery fruit.” These humble edibles are now international superstars with top billing in pricey juices, workout powders and even energy bars.

But do beets and watermelon live up to all the hype, and can you get the benefits without shelling out a small fortune for wallet-busting products? Here’s what’s in it for you.

These red foods work wonders by increasing levels of artery-relaxing nitric oxide in the body. Relaxed arteries mean increased blood flow, and that means better athletic (and don’t forget sexual) performance. Some studies have suggested that watermelon juice and beet juice could give elite competitors an edge at the finish line. Watermelon is rich in citrulline, a compound converted into the amino acid arginine, a precursor to NO. Beets are packed with sodium nitrate, which is transformed by bacteria in your mouth into sodium nitrites that are then converted into NO.

Watermelon juice also can reduce post-work-out muscle soreness. That can make exercise and everyday activity easier for couch potatoes, people with breathing problems such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and heart failure, studies show. Other research shows that this important compound that keeps arteries flexible also reduces blood pressure. Bottom line: We’ve been talking up the benefits of NO for a long time. These fascinating studies drill down into how one food can help you get or stay healthy. The big picture: We all need plenty of NO every day. Here’s how to get it:

Load up on natural nitrates. Plenty of veggies and fruits pack a nitrate wallop. They belong on everyone’s plate seven days a week. In fact, some researchers suspect that artery-relaxing nitrates are a big reason for the blood-pressure-lowering prowess of the DASH Diet -- the famous, produce-packed eating plan proven to reduce hypertension naturally. While all produce has some nitrates, choosing the right ones can increase your daily intake almost ten-fold!

Top sources include beets (of course!), spinach, radishes, arugula, celery, watercress and plain old lettuce. Other nitrate-rich edibles include Chinese cabbage, fennel, leeks, turnips and endive, as well as broccoli, cucumbers, carrots, pumpkin and cauliflower, and herbs like dill and parsley. Bananas, pomegranate juice and oranges also are good choices.

Eat it raw. Cooking leaches some nitrates from veggies, so be sure to have a “super source” raw once in a while. That’s as easy as tossing together a spinach and arugula salad, grating beets and carrots for a colorful slaw or crunching celery sticks and radish slices dunked in yogurt dip (we like yogurt mixed with lemon juice, dill, garlic and a splash of olive oil for Mediterranean pizazz).

Don’t confuse fruit and vegetable nitrates with the nitrites in processed meats. Cured foods like hot dogs and bacon can be high in nitrites, cancer-causing compounds related to meat preservatives. These additives keep meat looking pink and discourage the growth of bacteria. Red meat and processed meats can threaten your heart and, in a recent warning from the World Health Organization, also boost cancer risk. So don’t skip fruits and veggies, but do cut back or better yet, cut out all processed meats in your family’s diet!

Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, tune into “The Dr. Oz Show” or visit

Haul out your blender

If you’re curious about beet or watermelon smoothies, make your own. Most of us have a juicer, a blender, a food processor or all three, so pull one out (we like blenders or processors best, as they keep fiber in your juice) and get to work. Watermelon is easy, because it’s mostly juice anyway. For a delicious beet elixir, try Dr. Oz’s favorite red drink by blending together 1/2 cup of peeled, chopped beets; 1/2 cup diced red pepper; 2 cups watermelon cubes; 1 cup hulled strawberries (frozen works great); 1 cup cucumber chunks; 1/2 cup ice; plus grated fresh ginger and lime juice to taste.